Saturday, October 28, 2017

Book Review: Wabi-Sabi Welcome

I have been seeking English-language books on wabisabi for about a decade now and another addition to that too-short shelf is Julie Pointer Adams' Wabi-Sabi Welcome: Learning to Embrace the Imperfect and Entertain with Ease. The book makes an interesting distinction in that it moves beyond creating a space with objects that possess or embody wabisabi toward the act of entertaining.

As an object, the book typifies the rough hewn feel of wabisabi. The spine of the hardcover of the book is exposed and the book's title is printed straight on to the exposed folios of the book. There is a heft to it and the images in the book do a great deal to introduce the principles of wabisabi and how they can be embodied during a gathering.

In a distinct departure from other books, Pointer Adams has five chapters set in five different regions: Japan, of course, but also Denmark, California, France and Italy. In the chapter on Japan, the book lays out the principles of wabisabi and what they typify from an aesthetic view, but there is also great detail on relationships and interaction as well. The case is made for eschewing the pursuit of perfection for a more relaxed interaction. The move from the visual arts and our surroundings to ways of interacting. The case is made to be spontaneous when entertaining and to be open, to not merely schedule intermittent occasions to have guests and strive to have the meringue perfectly sculpted and every last edible flower in its rightful place but to have guests regularly and spontaneously as a means of bridging distances in over an informal gathering, whether tea or a meal.

The book is a good primer in the area of wabisabi, but the travelogue approach does the topic a disservice.  The chapters set in Japan and in Denmark provide the fundamentals on wabisabi principles and show how it can have its analogs in other cultures and locales but the subsequent chapters lose a bit of the focus that is apparent at the start.

The chapters on California, France and Italy do not add much to the discussion and there are times when the book veers a little too close to stereotypes about each place to actually be a discussion about wabisabi. The attempt to link wabisabi with the Danish practice of hygge works, but the suggestion that the French phrase c'est la vie equates with wabisabi seems, at best, forced.

Instead of providing the deep detail on the topic that Leonard Koren and Andrew Juniper provide in their writing, there are digressions on cooking, shopping and the stresses that come with entertaining that overextend the application of wabisabi principles before they are adequately discussed. There are times when the discussions of cooking and shopping in particular contradict the essence of wabisabi and there are further occasions for paradox when during the introduction the author says, "We've forgotten how good it is to have unhurried, uncurated experiences..." (p. 11), but introduces a passage on Denmark with the heading "The Simple Home - Collect, The Curate" which suggests continued accumulation and consumption en route to finding the uncluttered simplicity that wabisabi and other Japanese aesthetics espouse. Including very un-wabisabi chain retailers like Ikea and (Japan's equivalent) Muji among the resources for home basics keeps readers starting with this book from getting the full taste of what wabisabi signifies. The book would have great appeal among those interest in home design and entertaining but deeper reads on the topic, namely Koren's and Juniper's work remain the go-to reads.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Autumn's Transient Light

Needless to say, the changing of the seasons is an ongoing reminder of wabi-sabi. Harvests from the fields, the sky's chevrons of the southbound and the turning of the leaves from green to the shades of their respective fates all remind us that autumn captures the essence of change and transcience more clearly, and more gently, than the other seasons.

We are probably more responsive to these changes in the autumn than during other seasons as well. We are more entranced by the raking of leaves in a sweater that has been pulled out for the first time since early spring. Not only to be undeliberately meditate of the clatter of the tines and the shuffle and applause of the dry leaves, but we can just as easily gaze upon the grain of a wood handle as we grip it and pull the leaves toward us. This season's beauty, and its poignancy make us more attentive to the changes and increase our appreciation of nature.

Another aspect of autumn, in areas like Calgary where the length of the day changes so dramatically throughout the year, is the current length of the day. Dawns and dusks have crept back in from the distant corners of 4am and 10pm to become the actual bookends of the workday. Each sunny day, the skies extend an invitation to pause and take in the fleet changes in the shades of the clouds as the sun tracks its course during our commutes. The long stretches of summer brightness -- quite welcome, I'll grant you -- make us less attentive to the changes that occur in the sky during a single day.  The summer's long light, just like its heat, makes us drowsier and less inattentive. Perhaps because of the timeliness alone, I seen more and more people pause to take out their phones and capture the beauty of sunrise or sunset during the autumn than would be the case at other times of year. Even if it is a mere matter of convenience, we truly take our time to drink in the changes of the season.

For all the comfort of summer, and despite the harbingers of winter that have already applied their first dreaded bites on us, the autumn is a time to observe and reflect in wonder at the beauty of a moment where the sun is in the right place to add an element of beauty to a yellowed tree that makes us far more present and focused on the moment than we are in summer and definitely in winter, when we would want to shut out the world and immerse ourselves in all the warmth that we can provide ourselves.

It is also a moment when we are more comfortable with that paradox of a beautiful omen of all that autumn symbolizes and prefaces. We are attentive to the changes that occur and with our careful regard for the acoustic rasp of fallen leaves at our feet, we even immerse ourselves in the details of our surroundings more deliberately and more energetic than we do during the lethargies that the heat of summer and the frigid grasp of winter elicit from us.

This is the season when we pause and tune our senses more carefully to all that our surroundings offer at this time of year and we absorb the spiritual offerings of the season to make ourselves wiser and perhaps optimistic about the looming winter.